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Thursday, January 6, 2011

The Shaping of Wisconsin

Robert C. Nesbit and William F. Thompson noted in the last chapter of Wisconsin: A History that up until World War II, Wisconsin had given the impression that the state didn’t have race relation problems. Wisconsin is often painted with the broad and sweeping brush of abolitionism. This brush swept clean and colored bright any real racial struggle leading up to and through the Civil War. The conventional wisdom of many historians is that race relation problems were associated with states in the South only. There is a definite role that race played in shaping the early development of Wisconsin. The social, cultural, political and economic framework of the state was influenced greatly and ultimately molded by the racial climate of the time.
The issue of race was as crucial to the early development of Wisconsin as any other. The two most important factors that trace back as underlying causes of racism from the colonial period to the Civil War were the reactions to the Black Hawk War and the Underground Railroad. The idea that white men were superior is a unifying philosophy that serves as the foundation on which Wisconsin was built.
The Black Hawk War resulted in the “American” claim on Native American lands. The U.S. government killed many of the Sauk, Fox and Winnebago (now Ho-Chunk) to obtain it. Chief Keokuk and Black Hawk were adversarial warriors who led the tribes. Chief Keokuk gave up land to Governor Clark. He led a portion of these tribes west of the Mississippi, but not before many were slaughtered. Black Hawk on the other hand, sought alliance with the members of tribes who chose not to follow Keokuk. Black Hawk and his Ho-Chunk, Sauk and Fox followers surrendered. Black Hawk said that the “Rock River was a beautiful country. I loved my towns, my cornfields, and the home of my people. I fought for it. It is now yours. Keep it as we did.”[1]
What right did the government have to their land? We were in a period of time where the white race felt superior to any other and would go to any length to acquire what they desired. Even Abraham Lincoln appeared to make light of the battles being fought with Native Americans during the time he was Captain. He believed they were “savage” and he is quoted as saying that if “General Cass went in advance of me in picking whortleberries, I guess I surpassed him in the charge of wild onions. If he saw any live, fighting Indians, it was more than I did; but I had a good many struggles with the mosquitoes.”[2] This was an example of future president Lincoln’s ambivalence towards issues of race. This was in stark contrast with how history has so fondly remembered him.
With the development of the Underground Railroad in the years from 1850 to 1860, it could be seen that there were abolitionists in Wisconsin.[3] There were also those who were not tolerant at all. The effects in the years to come later would be staggering. By the 1920s, interest in the KKK heightened. Continuing this trend, the 1960 census shows that Marshfield (population 14,153) and Wisconsin Rapids (population 15,042) did not have a single African American resident listed. It could be argued that the very thing that helped African Americans in the North, the Underground Railroad, was the very reason that hate groups such as the KKK saw membership reach as high as 75,000.[4]
Race relations would actually become worse after the Civil War and Reconstruction beginning around 1890. This fact was beginning to take root by 1860 because as Nesbit reports, “the rapid population increase of 154 percent, from 305,00 in 1850 to 776,000 in 1860, multiplied the strains of ethnic and religious difference” and that “such rapid growth and movement contributed, along with the ethnic, religious, and political divisions, to the instability of the society.”[5] Race was also obviously very much a factor in the societal discord that would become Wisconsin by time the Civil War had erupted in the 1860s. Nesbit called it “statehood in an unstable union” from 1846-1865 and reminds us that the Civil War failed to unite the state.[6]
Colonial Wisconsin was said to be a new opportunity to many immigrants of numerous national origins and religious affiliations. At the same time, the Milwaukee Seebote warned emigrants to choose Russia or Turkey rather than the United States, ‘the country of the Lords of New England, where Germans and Irish must be annihilated, to make room for the negro.”[7] In The Waukesha Freeman, an article by Mrs. Dora Putnam appeared September 26th, 1907 and was read earlier that month on the 12th at a meeting of the Waukesha County Historical Society. Her article read, “This was the history making epoch of the state of Wisconsin. The inrush of white settlers in 1836 saved the state from being set aside as an Indian territory, the exclusive home of the red man. Those same settlers saved the state a second time from the stigma of upholding slavery of the black man.”[8] This article exhibits the lack of cultural competence by even those calling themselves abolitionists. Wisconsin was viewed as an abolitionist state and it was host to portions of the Underground Railroad. Abolitionists did not necessarily believe African and Native Americans were equal.
One must keep in mind that the Underground Railroad was designed to go through Wisconsin with the desired destination for freed slaves being Canada. The Underground Railroad, while very good for those fleeing slavery in the South, was very influential and formative in setting the stage for backlash against African Americans. In Mrs. Putnum’s article, she recalls a “jingle” that was composed in “honor” of the founder of the Platteville Normal (which would later come to be known as the University of Wisconsin – Platteville) in remembrance of a neighborhood near Platteville that was referred to as “Abolition Hollow” that went like this: Abolition Holler, Three feet wide, A n----r in the middle, A McCord on each side. Where no one heard the whistle, Nor the rumble of the cars. As the d-rkies rode to freedom, Beyond the stripes and stars.”[9] One can see examples that are of extreme importance in truly understanding racism in Wisconsin during the formative years before the Civil War. The key words of note in this jingle are three. The first two are “n----r” and “d-rkie” which are extremely offensive racial slurs and the last is “beyond” which makes it clear to African Americans they were not welcome to stay. While Mrs. Putnum was very much in favor of ending slavery, she did not appear to believe that African Americans were created equal.
Platteville was a prominent city in 1860 that boasted a population of 2,865. The city had 7 African Americans listed as residents in the 1860 census. In 1900, Platteville had grown to 3,340, but was down to just one African American resident. Platteville was quite a big city during the turn of the twentieth century. As Nesbit notes, there were only thirteen cities with populations over 5,000.[10] By looking at the 1930 and 1940 censuses, one can see that there were no African Americans living in Platteville during those decades. The population had swelled to over 4,000 by 1930 and almost reached 5,000 by 1940.
The scope of the Constitution of 1848 was exclusive and prejudiced against those thought to be inferior. The rights of Native Americans to their land were ignored as was their rights of any involvement in the new state government.[11] African American suffrage was put to referendum and even though passed was ignored and argued as not being a legal right. [12] It is clear why Nesbit would characterize Wisconsin as a much fragmented and divided society.[13] The point is hard to argue. It also can be a bit deceiving. There was for the most part much unity for those in power, influence and authority. The lines drawn in early Wisconsin were along racial divides. African and Native Americans were repeatedly denied opportunities, rights and property. The Black Hawk War and the Underground Railroad had a very profound effect on crafting Wisconsin into a very socially stratified state by the 1860s.

1] Robert C. Nesbit, Wisconsin: A History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 1989), 99.
[2] Ibid., 99.
[3] Dora Putnam. “The Underground Railway in Wisconsin,” [September 26, 1907]: 1-4, [accessed April 10, 2009].
[4] Robert C. Nesbit, Wisconsin: A History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 1989), 467
[5] Ibid., 242-243.
[6] Ibid., 260.
[7] Ibid., 210.
[8] Dora Putnam. “The Underground Railway in Wisconsin,” [September 26, 1907]: 1-4, [accessed April 10, 2009].
[9] Ibid.,1-4.
[10] Robert C. Nesbit, Wisconsin: A History (Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 1973, 1989), 342.
[11] Ibid., 96-100.
[12] Ibid., 215-224.
[13] Ibid., 242-243.

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